Most visitors to Kyoto rarely venture west of the Katsura River. On the face of it, the western tract of the city of Kyoto pales in comparison to Higashiyama in the east, which feels as though it could crumble under the weight of world heritage sites and the tourist hordes ticking them off their bucket lists.
But one location that does draw visitors west is Katsura Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Villa), with its pristine gardens hidden behind a wall of trees and bamboo. If you’ve made it that far, venture a little further from the beaten track, where you’ll find Sumikura, a welcoming family-run restaurant that sits at an intersection in a warren of narrow roads midway between the Imperial abode and Katsura Station.
The star attraction at Sumikura is the Shokado bento, which is every bit as elegant as it sounds.
Much like a bento box, Sumikura has to do a lot within a confined space. Seating is divided between a short counter facing the open kitchen and private rooms tucked away in alcoves.
Our bento lunch opened with an elegant homage to the vegetables of summer: kernels of sweet corn, slices of okra and kujo negi, a mild-tasting scallion native to Kyoto encased in a konbu dashi jelly and topped with a blob of salty umeboshi (pickled plum). The graceful creation was draped with a slice of pickled lotus root. As a whole it was a welcome riposte to the searing heat waiting for us outside.
As you might expect for bento, the line-up changes continuously, but it is usually a broad sweep of the Japanese cooking canon: sashimi, tempura and simmered vegetables. Fair warning: Nattō (fermented soybeans) is a frequent feature.
Of course, there’s always a chance that some servings will miss the mark — the nattō lumped together with an edamame bean encased in tempura batter was a case in point. I suspect the chef was staying true to the humble roots of bento, which is nothing if not a quotidian creation.
Much better was the thin-as-a-blade strip of wagyu beef glazed with soy sauce and wrapped around a stub of udo, a pale green vegetable related to ginseng. The udo was for the most part there for texture, yin to the wagyu’s wonderful yang.
The excellently named grunt fish (isaki) was broiled and served with simmered tōgan (winter melon), the vegetable having been preserved naturally since the previous winter. In a separate quadrant of the bento, sashimi came in the form of kamasu (barracuda), a lean white fish that was as fresh as it was delicious. Rounding out the bento was sweet corn soup, another ode to summer, that was halfway between a potage and a thin dashi-based broth. It was wonderfully layered.
Bentō are such an everyday part of life in Japan that it can be easy to take them for granted. Every once in a while it’s worth rediscovering the possibility of this imaginative and resourceful meal. At Sumikura, they think carefully about what’s inside the box. Go west, you’ll enjoy it.
47 Kawashimaawatacho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-394-4575; www.sumikura.jimdo.com; nearest station: Katsura; open daily, lunch from noon-2 p.m., dinner from 6-9:30 p.m.; set meals from ¥3,500; smoking OK; Japanese menu; Japanese spoken